Review: Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown flounder in the complete failure of ‘Winter’s Tale’

The moment I got home from my screening of “Winter’s Tale,” written and directed by Akiva Goldsman, the first thing I did was download the novel to my Kindle so I could read it. I made it four chapters before I set it aside, satisfied that whatever my problems are with “Winter’s Tale” have little or nothing to do with Mark Helprin or his book. Mr. Helprin, you are free to go.

This is one of those books that people don’t just like… they love it. It is important to them. When you talk to a fan of the book, they get evangelical about the experience they had reading it. I get that. There are plenty of books that have done that to me, and there are a few of them that I have considered trying to adapt as screenplays. The hard part of that is realizing that sometimes the very thing that makes you fall in love with something on the page may not translate in any direct way to film, a far more visual media. There are things I have read in books over the years that positively devastated me, but I am well aware that the power of the reaction I had is due in no small part to the language used, the precision of the way words are deployed, and something that is piercing as a metaphor becomes somewhat dopey when you see it brought to life by actual people.

The most difficult thing about “Winter’s Tale” is that you can tell the entire cast is giving it everything they have. They believe in the film they’re making. You cannot accuse this of being indifferent corporate product. There is an overwhelming sincerity about the way the story is told that, if anything, only makes it more embarrassing to see how completely and utterly they missed the mark.

And, let’s be clear… when I say “they,” what I really mean is Akiva Goldsman. I don’t have the same homicidal distaste for him that much of nerd-dom does. I think “Batman and Robin” is a terrible movie, but it’s a case of someone having a complete tin ear for something and no one else on the project noticing. It’s happened again. The sad part is that this is a pet project for him, something he has been deeply invested in getting produced, and whatever failings the film has fall squarely on his shoulders. He has adapted this to such a degree that it is basically an original work now, his response to the feeling he had when he read “Winter’s Tale” as a book.

And unfortunately, “Winter’s Tale” is the “Batman and Robin” of magical realism.

Five minutes into the film, I had a sinking feeling. I feel like films that grapple with theology can either tend to the esoteric or they can end up being overly complicated or they can take the tact this film does: they can end up being gooey, pandering, simple-minded garbage. And in the final five minutes of the film, they wrap it all up with some narration that made me violently angry. It is the sort of feel-good affirmation garbage that can only be delivered or believed from a position of enormous privilege. When you start babbling about destiny and fate and say something like “What if the universe loves us all equally, so much so that it bends over backwards across the centuries for each of us?” Well, what about it? Sounds great. How about we go to a pediatric cancer ward and you can explain it to all the children there who are dying? Or maybe we could sit down with survivors of sexual abuse, and you can tell them how everybody gets to be a star and it’s all going to work out just fine. Maybe you can explain to me sometime how your philosophy accounts for the vast majority of people who don’t get what they want and who the universe truly could not care any less about, because I’m confused.

When true love appears for you on a silver platter delivered by a magical horse with wings and more magic cures cancer and angels and devils are running around talking about miracles, it’s pretty easy to assume the universe loves you enough to bend over backwards for you, but how does a chuckle-headed philosophy like that accommodate the pain and the suffering and the random horror that much of this planet faces every single day? The universe loves us all equally? Really? The end of this movie is an exercise in main characters getting everything they want and then some, all because of some convoluted magical intercession, and mainly because they’re all pretty, certainly not because anyone in the film does a single thing that would mark them as special or good or in some way deserving, and while it’s all played so earnestly that it hurts, I’m not sure how any of the nonsense that happens here is supposed to apply to the universal human condition in any way.

Sorry, Mr. Goldsman, but the universe does not deliver flying horses and magical cures to everyone, and nothing about your movie applies to the way real people live, so with all due respect… what the hell are you talking about?

The writer/director compounds his problems from the very start by trying to set up a flashback structure that doesn’t help his story at all. When we first see Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), it’s the present day and he’s wandering around Grand Central Station in New York, poking into hidden nooks and crannies and coming up with photos and artifacts from his own past. We then jump back to the year 1895, when Peter’s parents land at Ellis Island. They are turned away because his father has consumption, put back on the next boat out, and they decide to rig a model boat to carry their new-born infant back to New York. Never mind that it’s a model and not an actual vessel designed to work on real water, and never mind that when we see his parents lower him to the water, they appear to be ten miles or so away from the shore and there’s a lightning storm rolling in, possibly making them the worst parents in movie history. It’s all so precious and so serious, and none of it really has anything to do with where we pick the story up in 1916.

By now, Peter has grown into Colin Farrell, and we see that he’s being hunted in the streets of New York by Pearly Soames, played by Russell Crowe with an Irish accent so risible it sounds like he has a whole box of Lucky Charms in his mouth. Soames has been chasing Peter around New York for three years for some reason, and now he and his boys have got him cornered. And just as they’re about to cosplay the race riot from “Romper Stomper” all over him, he finds a horse, and the film introduces the next bit of magical realism. And then there’s another soon after, and another, and pretty soon, “Winter’s Tale” is throwing a cascade of stuff at you, and none of it really adds up in a dramatic sense, but it’s all obviously in service of something, and by the time the film pays off all these things (“Oh, wow, look, it’s the nameplate his dad took off the model boat two and a half hours ago!”), it feels so laboriously mechanical, so over-calculated, that there’s no wonder to it.

See, Pearly Soames is a demon. And he runs New York. And he reports to Will Smith, who is a guy named Lou and if you don’t automatically know that means Lucifer then you’ve never seen a movie before in your life, and Lucifer lives in a sewer and wears a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt that I imagine the production team having hours of conversations about, and every now and then, Russell Crowe and Will Smith grow CGI teeth or their faces rip open a little bit and they yell and then they’re fine again. And demons hate miracles, and Pearly Soames runs all the rackets in New York and also hunts and kills people who have potential miracles in them, except the film points out that we are all miracles and the universe bends over backwards for us and so wouldn’t Pearly just want to kill everyone and how does that help Lucifer and why is he in the sewer again?

Now, I haven’t even gotten into the love story yet. While he’s on his way out of New York on horseback, determined to lay low for a while so Pearly will forget about him, Peter stops to burgle a few houses. His horse stops in front of one just in time for Peter to see everyone leaving with suitcases, and the horse won’t move until Peter goes inside. But inside, he’s not alone, because not everyone left, and inside he finds… the most wonderful perfect girl ever created for anything ever. She’s beautiful and she’s vibrantly alive and she’s curious and she’s sweet and she has a giving spirit and she’s drop-dead beautiful and she loves him right away and he loves her right away, and oh yeah, she has consumption and she’s going to die.

You know… consumption… the exact same thing that took Peter’s parents from him. That consumption. Completely by coincidence. Wink. Nudge. Poke.

It’s love at first sight for the both of them, and her family immediately welcomes Peter in, even though he meets her after he has broken in to rob them blind. No matter. Pish posh. Everyone is adorable. Everything is wonderful, but shot through with the tragic knowledge that she could die at any moment, and that dancing or running or making love would be too strenuous to her, and she will die if she does them. But how can she resist dancing with Colin Farrell and his terrible, terrible haircut? And how can he resist when she says, “If you don’t make love to me, no one ever will?” Oh, the tragic irony. Oh, the sad timing. Oh, the hogwash.

Jessica Findley Brown plays Beverly, and speaking as someone who has never seen “Downton Abbey,” I think the film makes a strong case for her as an actor directors are rightfully going to freak out for and who will make about a dozen movies in the next two years. She’s great. The camera positively loves her, and she is almost able to make this threadbare character idea genuinely charming and vulnerable. Farrell treats her in all of their scenes together like a bear who is afraid of spooking a baby deer. She brings out this very tender Farrell, and if this film works at all for audiences, it will be because these two have great energy together.

But, oh, man, did that script start to grate on me. I don’t mind magical realism. I think it can be a beautiful way to tell a story, whether on a page or onscreen, but it takes a real master’s touch. It is not an easy thing to do well. This thing keeps introducing rules and setting up eventual pay-offs, and it’s very busy, but you can see every move. It’s like you spend an hour watching a magician prep all of his tricks and then he turns around and does them for you, but the way he’s standing, you can see every single thing he’s doing and you don’t want to say anything because he’s working so hard but it’s so, so sad.

Now imagine that everything I’ve told you so far is still only the first half of the film. Now imagine that Colin Farrell just stops aging for some reason, and that he gets amnesia, and he spends a hundred years drawing chalk paintings in the park and growing rock star hair, all so he can eventually run into Jennifer Connelly, whose daughter is dying from cancer and she ends up being employed by the adorable little sister of Brown’s character, and then he gets his memory back and we know he knows because he gets that amazingly stupid haircut again, and then somehow…

… actually, don’t. Don’t bother. I can’t even explain it in a way that sounds like I’m describing a real movie. I’m still not sure what rules there are for why things happen in this film, and I have no idea what any of this ridiculous bullshit has to do with stars, and I’m not sure why they make such a big deal out of Russell Crowe deciding to turn into a human being so he can have a cage fight with Colin Farrell, and I don’t get why any of the random crap that Goldsman laboriously introduces is supposed to impress us when it comes together at the end, since there are no stakes and there is no order to anything and there’s no sense at any point that there is anything remotely urgent about any of these people getting what they want.

The film looks like it cost a ton of money. I’m willing to bet that what they spent on catering for this film is more than I’ve made in my adult career. This is an act of personal hubris by Goldsman that Warner Bros. is going to have to soak up and smile about, and I have no doubt they all know it. I would love to have sat in a meeting with the people charged with selling this film after they screened it for the first time. It is the kind of colossal failure that can only be made after enormous success, and if it doesn’t turn out to be the only film that Goldsman ever directs, it will only be because someone owes him a favor. Like a “I saved you from being eaten by an alligator” sized favor. Caleb Deschanel, Naomi Shohan, Hans Zimmer, Rupert Gregson-Williams, and many other talented people all do their best to slap lipstick on this pig, but it is to no avail. If this was a movie by anyone else, this would be a trip directly to director’s jail for a decade, but I have a feeling Goldsman will dodge the bullet. He makes too much money for too many people, and they’ll all smile and tell him to his face that it’s “really something,” and they will keep him doing production polishes on other people’s films and privately conspire to make sure he never, ever gets a chance to do something like this again.

I am astonished by this film. I don’t know if I want to give it an “A” or an “F.” It is a testament to all the ways the development process can fail the people writing the checks, and it is so dopey that even the two main characters in this week’s “Endless Love” would accuse this movie of laying it on thick. I am almost tempted to urge you to see for yourselves, but I don’t want to deal with the angry e-mails afterwards.

“Winter’s Tale” opens everywhere tomorrow. Consider yourself duly warned.